Amgueddfa Blog: Cadwraeth

When Dr Christian Baars, the Senior Preventive Conservator at National Museum Cardiff, contacted me to ask me take part in his project, I’d never really thought about the work going on behind the scenes at a museum. I’d been on a tour I mean, beyond the ticket desk, café staff, security guards and perhaps cleaners if you’re there right to the end of the day. But have you ever thought about the work that goes into maintaining collections and displays? I doubt it.

Conserving the historic exhibits is one of the largest behind the scenes jobs. There are many things that can damage the artefacts, such as light, air pollution and moisture. But for a big collection of stuffed animals, such as in Cardiff, one of the big problems is pest insects. Lots of different insects, such as carpet beetles and clothes moths, like to eat dead animals. Dr Baars showed me some of the pinned insect collection, which are falling apart or disappearing because one of the beetles has got in to eat them.

We wanted to show the visitors that fighting these insects is a huge job and so we set about making a video that showed the damage the beetles can do. Luckily, Dr Baars had a dead mouse in the freezer (as you do!) which would do just the job. I added some beetle larvae to the dead mouse and left it in a box to be eaten. I used a time lapse camera to film the process of the mouse being devoured by the beetle larvae.  

The resulting video is on the right hand side of this page. Evidently, the mouse is getting progressively smaller as the larvae munch through its body. Now imagine this happening to the woolly mammoth, or the foxes, or any other amazing object at the museum. This is what museum conservators work hard to prevent and this is why we wanted to spread the word.

Once the video was finished, I showed it to museum visitors and asked people to tell me what they thought it was about. Most people had not heard about conservation in museums before nor about the damage insects may cause, even though some had experience with moths or similar insects at home. One visitor described it as fascinating. Another reminded me that “dead things always make good exhibits!” People certainly enjoyed the “gross factor” of a video of a decomposing mouse!

Yet the most important result for me was the finding that everyone wanted to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at museums. Both adults and children understood the significance of the work. An adult visitor said “once it’s dead and in a case, you don’t really think about it about what happens after”, highlighting the need and the interest in what goes on to make a museum exhibit happen. And a younger visitor exclaimed “imagine you had a billion year old thing and it just got ate… I would very sad”. I couldn’t agree more.

While the purpose of this project was to educate museum visitors about pest management in museums, I think this experiment shows there is an enthusiasm for knowing more about the hard work of museum staff beyond those you see when you visit. In Cardiff visitors can come for free, but in a world where every institution is fighting for funding, we need to show the public that our work is vital and worth every penny. We showed that it is simple to raise awareness and that the work of conservators is worth an exhibit or two all of its own.

 

Charlotte @scicommchar undertook this project as part of a 'Learning Lab' placement while studying for a MSc degree in Science Communication at the University of the West of England. The University contact was Andy Ridgway, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication and Programme Leader MSc/PGCert in Science Communication, @AndyRidgway1. Many thanks also to Rhodri Viney, the National Museum's Digital Content Assistant, for help with producing the video.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

 

Last week saw the 50th anniversary and the 18th conference of ICOM-CC (Committee on Conservation), the largest of the committees of ICOM (International Council of Museums). ICOM-CC has almost 3,000 members worldwide from every branch of the museum and conservation profession. In addition to their day job of preserving the world's history and culture, these members also promote the conservation of cultural and historic works. I was able to attend thanks to generous support by the Anna Plowden Trust.

The conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was enormous: more than one thousand conservators headed the call to report and debate. While Copenhagen is an amazing city there was not much time to explore it, what with 5 parallel sessions and hundreds of talks to listen to during a packed conference programme. I would like to pick out and share just a few of my personal highlights.

The data generated during collections monitoring in museums can be explored sometimes beyond their original intention. Cristina Daron and Matija Strlic from University College London explained how unexpected patterns can be discovered by analysis of existing data sets. For example, they discovered a clear link between damage to archival objects and use of these objects in a reading room. This sort of data mining produces results that cannot be captured by experimental studies, but which can be used to improve decision making.

On the theme of data, I co-presented a talk with my colleague Jane Henderson from Cardiff University on new ways of presenting conservation data; you can find a copy of the paper here. Our suggestion is to present results not simply in the all too ubiquitous bar charts and line graphs, but to use more meaningful visualisations that are easier to interpret and send the correct message to the receiver. This will help make quicker and better decisions and ultimately improve the care of collections.

Conservation of cultural heritage involves a lot of risk assessments – there is so much to do that we try to figure out as objectively as possible where the most urgent need for resources is. Alice Cannon from Museum Victoria, Australia, explained how the deterioration of an object does not always mean a loss. Hence, when attempting to judge value loss, judgments must be made by experts from different fields. The potential value loss of an object needs to be considered when undertaking a risk assessment that might want to predict the estimated deterioration of that object in, say, 100 years.

Every museum has a store (or several), hence storage is a subject close to the heart for most people in the sector. Lise Raeder Knudsen from Conservation Centre Vejle, Denmark, summarised almost 30 years of experience of building low energy collection stores in Denmark. The main principle of such stores is high thermal and hydric inertia. The Danish cultural sector has proven that such stores can have both lower construction and running costs, while at the same time producing a stable environment suitable for the long-term storage of cultural collections. One issue currently still undergoing research is the potential problem of indoor pollutants which may accumulate if there is insufficient fresh air supply.

Likewise, training is an issue that keeps resurfacing in conservation as in other disciplines. Alice Boccia Paterakis introduced the Interdisciplinary Training of Archaeologists and Archaeological Conservators Initiative (ITAACI) programme from the USA, where archaeologists and conservators are being brought together to work jointly and raise awareness of each other’s needs. The training theme also carried through to the poster sessions, where Monika Harter from London informed us how the British Museum, with some clever planning, had used succession planning to train two conservators for the price of one. This included the passing on of hard-to-come-by expert knowledge from one generation to the next.

My final highlight is Jonathan Ashley-Smith’s analogy of coffee shops to explain why, in his opinion, conservation needs a new approach to ethics. He explained that a new, bespoke, code of ethics would use a variety of ingredients to design something that suits each of the various and diverse disciplines that make up cultural heritage conservation. The internet would provide the ideal tool to publish a bespoke code of ethics, as well as conservation intentions, proposals and records all in one place and, ideally, in Wikis. Jonathan’s talk created more debate and Twitter traffic than any other talk and I suspect his idea will keep being discussed.

The conference programme was rounded off by various specialist working group meetings, technical visits, opportunities to see Copenhagen’s museums and social events. A packed week with countless inspiring conversations with colleagues from all over the world. Not always without controversy of course – some ideas out there are interesting but perhaps require further scrutiny. Perhaps a topic for a future blog or paper.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

There are times in life when a problem and its solution come together seamlessly.

The problem – one which every museum faces: cryptic causes of deterioration of stored objects.

The solution: investigation using the latest chemical analyses.

One step better: to combine this analysis with the mission of museums – inspiring people – and undertake the investigative work with full public engagement.

Like most museums, National Museum Cardiff has the task of slowing down corrosion to preserve collections. Think of your family silver tarnishing and you know what I am talking about. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of metal objects in our collection and you understand the herculean task we face when we come to work every day.

Like most museums, we do not have much equipment to undertake complex chemical analyses. So when we want to investigate the magnitude of potential sources of corrosive airborne substances in our collection stores, we often work in partnership with academic institutions.

SEAHA is an initiative between three universities with industry and heritage partners to improve our understanding of heritage science. Heritage science is multi disciplinary and includes experts with chemistry, imaging, IT, engineering, architecture and other backgrounds. One of SEAHA’s amazing facilities is a fully equipped mobile laboratory. We submitted an application last year for the mobile lab to come to Cardiff which, amazingly (there is much demand for this vehicle), was approved. Last week, staff and postgraduate students from University College London, one of SEAHA’s academic partners, visited National Museum Cardiff.

The Mobile Heritage Lab was at the museum for two days. During this time, we assessed environments and pollutants in collection stores and in public galleries. We undertook this work with full involvement of our museum visitors. The mobile lab was parked next to the museum entrance where we encouraged our visitors to explore the on-board analytical equipment. UCL staff and students were at hand to explain how science helps us preserve heritage collections, for example how UV fluorescence is used to explore paintings.

We received a visit by A-level students from Fitzalan High School in Cardiff in the morning. The students were especially interested in chemistry. After a quick introduction, we gave the students an ultra-fine particle counter to produce a pollutant map of the public galleries at the museum. The students used this equipment to measure ultra-fine dust inside and outside the museum. We are still analysing these data, but the early results indicate that the museum’s air filtration system is doing a good job at keeping dust out of the building. This is important because the gases associated with ultra-fine particles (for example, SO2) can damage paper and other organic materials.

We also measured concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in collection stores and found that levels were higher inside drawers in the Entomology collection than in the store itself; this is important in the context of entomological pin corrosion. We managed to confirm that work we undertook recently to reduce the levels of VOC in the museum’s Mineralogy store had been effective and successful. In addition, we used a thermal imaging camera to check whether relatively high temperatures in a display case are caused by heating pipes in the wall behind the case, or by in-case lighting.

The Mobile Heritage Lab’s visit provided us with an opportunity to answer some important questions about the way we care for the museum’s collections. At the same time, we managed to teach students the practical applications of investigative science and analytical chemistry. Lastly, we spoke to many museum visitors about the role played by science in the preservation of heritage collections. We are extremely grateful for the fruitful partnership with SEAHA and hope to collaborate on additional projects in the near future. For example, there are some interesting questions surrounding the deposition of different types of dust which we discussed over a beer on Thursday evening. Watch this space as multi-disciplinary heritage science is becoming ever more important for answering questions of collection care and preservation. Museums are best placed to working in partnerships on important scientific questions while achieving public impact by explaining to a wider audience how science works.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

Over the last few months you may have seen the Saving Treasures; Telling Stories team on social media using the hashtag ‘Finds Friday’, where we’ve been showcasing some of our wonderful treasure and non-treasure items recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru.

This month we’d like to focus on two special finds from Wales: The Abergavenny Coin Hoard and a prehistoric feasting site in Llanmaes.

Why these two finds?

Both have been nominated in a nationwide competition, held by the British Museum and The Daily Telegraph, to search for the nation’s favourite treasure item from the ‘Top 20’ list.

2017 marks the 20th anniversary since the passing of the 1996 Treasure Act and items on the ‘Top 20’ list highlight some of the most important treasure discoveries since the Treasure Act.

We might be a tad biased towards which ones we’ll be voting for, but we want to share the history behind these finds as they really do have a story to tell, or in the case of Llanmaes, an enigmatic mystery as to what was actually happening at the site. You can read about the 20 items by clicking this link, and don't forget to vote!

Llanmaes

Our first nomination on the ‘Top 20’ treasure list is a site, rather than a single group of objects. The discovery is a prehistoric feasting place and settlement, uncovered in Llanmaes, in the Vale of Glamorgan.

This important site was discovered following the reporting of a potential treasure find by two metal detectorists in 2003, and excavation continued for the next seven years by archaeologists from the National Museum of Wales, assisted by students from Cardiff University and local volunteers.

The story behind Llanmaes

The earliest remains on the site, dating to about 2150-1950 BC, are the cremated remains of an adult male, which were buried in an urn. It seems that this burial provided the focus for later settlement, which yielded treasure objects such as a gold bead. One mystery object in the shape of a great white shark’s tooth has left archaeologists puzzled. We’re not too sure where it came from or why it was left there!

By the beginning of the Iron Age (about 675 BC) this settlement had been abandoned, but the site continued to be the focus of human activity in the form of feasting, which left behind an extensive midden deposit. This is the first known example from Wales, of a class of middens representing remarkable accumulations of cultural material gathered by communities at the beginning of the Iron Age. This has revealed an extraordinary prehistoric feasting mound, containing thousands of pig bones, further feasting vessels, bronze cauldrons, pottery and axes.

Unexpectedly, nearly three-quarters of the animal bones were from pigs – a far higher proportion than is usual for such deposits, and, even more remarkable is the discovery that the majority of the pigs’ bones were from the right fore-quarter of the animal. Similarly, some of the axe-heads are of a type associated with parts of northern France, so it seems as though people were converging on Llanmaes during the Early Iron Age from a wide area to engage in cultural activities which had clear rules and accepted practices.

Feasting seems to have come to an end at the site during the Roman period, when changing cultural practices made the earlier rituals less appropriate, but evidence of continued Roman occupation suggests that it still held meaning for local people into the 4th century AD.

The community at Llanmaes were closely involved with the excavations over the years, and the National Museum’s Archaeology department brought in a number of school groups to work with artists on creative responses, such as performances, inspired by the site.

Abergavenny hoard

In April 2002 three metal-detectorists had the find of their lives in a field near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire where they found a scattered hoard of 199 silver pennies.

The Abergavenny hoard is the earliest Norman hoard from Wales and provides a vivid picture of monetary circulation in the Welsh March in the 1080s CE. It includes 130 coins of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor (1042-66) and 69 coins of the Norman king William the Conqueror (1066-87).

Where did they come from?

Norman incursions into Gwent (present-day Monmouthshire) had followed hard on the heels of the conquest of England by Duke William in 1066 and they brought with them the habit of using coins.

The 199 silver pennies provide a rich mixture of issues of Edward the Confessor (1042-66) and William the Conqueror (1066-87); there are coins of 104 moneyers from 36 mints, with Hereford prominent.

The coins had been lost or hidden in a cloth bag, after about 1080 CE and for most people living in that time they would have represented several months’ pay. However, the lack of positive archaeological context makes it impossible to judge whether the coins had been concealed deliberately or were simply lost. We shall probably never know quite why these coins ended up in the corner of a field in Monmouthshire but, as well as expanding our knowledge of the coinage itself, they will cast new light on monetary conditions in the area after the Norman Conquest.

And there we have it, our two treasure finds on the ‘Top 20’ treasures list.

The online voting continues until May 15th, and you can vote for LLanmaes or the Abergavenny Hoard by following this link:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/treasure-20-vote-favourite/.

Our collaborations with Cardiff University in the area of heritage science continue to grow. Just before Easter, Daniel Griffiths from the School of Engineering contributed towards our goal of developing monitoring tools for use by museum conservators.

One of the routine tasks of conservators is to keep an eye on the condition of items stored in museums. Being responsible for looking after Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales’ five million objects, the team of less than 20 the conservators have their work cut out. In addition to the sheer number of objects in need of monitoring, for some categories of items there are currently issues with keeping adequate records for comparison with future condition assessments. We also want to objectivise the entire process to enable easier comparison between assessments undertaken at different times or by different people.

Presently, changes to collection items (if any) are detected by visual assessments and recording these in a text form, often supplemented with photographs. If such items are small and prone to chemical reactions, the results of which are difficult to describe, condition assessments are very difficult to undertake.

How do we make things easier, quicker and more objective? Daniel, a student in engineering, undertook a pilot study to create an overview of our options for non-invasive damage testing in geological specimens (specifically, in minerals). Some testing methods – such as acoustic emission, ultrasound, and X-ray and micro magnetic resonance imaging – were discounted early on in the project for various reasons. Any further techniques Daniel considered are based on imaging or scanning, grounded in the assumption that most damage to minerals is visible as changes in shape, integrity or colour.

Initial thoughts on using artificially aged pyrite were replaced in favour of CAD-designed and 3D-printed models of ‘crystals’: one set ‘undamaged’ and a second ‘damaged’ set with deliberately introduced yet precisely known ‘decay features’, such as holes and cuts. Daniel then scanned or imaged these models and compared the results for speed, ease of use, cost effectiveness and accuracy of recording of ‘decay’.

The best results were obtained with the Artec Space Spider, a handheld high-resolution 3D scanner based on blue light technology with easy-to-use software. The downside of this technique is the high purchasing cost of this instrument and software. Mobile phone technology, which was one of the comparative techniques, is not yet evolved enough to provide useful (i.e., good image quality, faithful recording of defects smaller than 5mm diameter) results.

The results of this study are encouraging because they provide us with a good foundation for future development work. There are questions about the faithful recording of colour, especially of reflective crystal surfaces, and combining features of storage, processing and analysis of images through one single computer program.

Daniel was supervised by Prof Rhys Pullin and Dr John McCrory from Cardiff University’s School of Engineering. We thank both of them for their support and cooperation in this project.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.